James M. Cain is a Damn Good Writer. A Damn Good Writer is someone who writes brisk, terrific prose with which seems effortless but which of course requires painstaking effort. A Damn Good Writer creates characters through action and dialogue, implanting those characters’ personas directly into the reader’s brain. And a Damn Good Writer tells a story with a beginning, middle and an end, none of this post-modern unresolved meditation on reality for him, damnit.
Based just on the title and a brief synopsis, Mildred Pierce seems like an odd departure for an author like James M. Cain. His two best known works are classic noir stories, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both of which became classic noir films. Mildred Pierce is about a Depression Era divorced mother who makes sacrifices for her snobbish, ungrateful daughter. Mildred finds success as a restaurant entrepreneur but can’t find a way to make her daughter Veda love her as unconditionally as Mildred loves her. That sounds more like a recurring plotline of a daytime soap, but in Cain’s surpassingly capable hands it becomes a pathway into the darkest recesses of the human mind, a shocking portrait of greed and unrelenting ambition, and one hell of a story.
However, it does take some getting used to. There isn’t a character in the story that is easy to root for. Mildred’s toughness and resolve are admirable in some respects, but her need to impress Veda leads her to make awful, impractical decisions that render her character fairly unlikable by the middle of the novel. It’s not much fun watching someone burn through their money, in a depression, just for reasons of pride.
Veda, even as a young teenager at the novel’s open, makes the reader squirm through her incomparably sinister nature. Veda is manipulative, selfish, prideful, and downright mean. These facts are emphasized by the story being told primarily from Mildred’s perspective, leading the reader to wonder at a mother having these thoughts about her own child despite loving her intensely, loving her even more than her other daughter.
By the end, Veda’s early forays into meanness, such as encouraging her father to drink expensive alcohol Mildred was planning to sell, will seem downright charitable in comparison. Veda’s descent into total evil, coinciding with her ascent as a successful entertainer, is as chilling as any pulp novel murder ever written. That’s an accomplishment only a Damn Good Writer could achieve.